Belfast woman can challenge North’s strict abortion regime, court rules

Sarah Ewart forced to travel to England for termination as unborn child had no chance of survival

Sarah Ewart was granted leave to seek a judicial review, amid claims the near-blanket ban breaches her human rights. Photograph: PA

Sarah Ewart was granted leave to seek a judicial review, amid claims the near-blanket ban breaches her human rights. Photograph: PA

 

A Belfast woman has won High Court approval to challenge Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws.

Sarah Ewart was granted leave to seek a judicial review, amid claims the near-blanket ban breaches her human rights.

Mr Justice McCloskey ruled on Wednesday that she has established an arguable case against the departments of Justice and Health at Stormont. “The applicant’s case overcomes the necessary threshold against both.”

He also pledged to have full proceedings completed no later than January next year.

Five years ago Mrs Ewart (28), was forced to travel to England for a termination after being told her unborn child had no chance of survival. She had backed a previous challenge taken by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

Unlike other parts of the UK, terminations are only legal within Northern Ireland to protect the woman’s life or if there is a risk of serious damage to her well-being.

Abortion laws

Earlier this year Britain’s supreme court concluded that abortion laws in the North in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality are incompatible with human rights law. But the court still rejected the commission’s case because it did not have the necessary legal standing.

Mrs Ewart has now brought a case in her own name, as a woman directly affected by the abortion legislation, and has vowed to see her legal fight “through to the end”.

She sought to judicially review the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the departments of Health and Justice at Stormont, and the Executive Committee. Her lawyers argued that the current regime breaches article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, dealing with entitlements to private and family life. They also contended that the legislation is having a “chilling effect” on anyone considering assisting in a medical termination.

Life imprisonment

Doctors could be left fearing potential life imprisonment if they become involved, the court heard.

Counsel for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland insisted it was a matter for the devolved administration at Stormont.

Delivering judgment in the preliminary stage of the renewed legal battle, Mr Justice McCloskey rejected the case brought against both the Secretary of State and the Executive Committee. He held that neither entity is subject to any relevant legal power, discretion, function or duty.

But turning to the two Stormont departments being challenged, he said: “In the applicant’s quest to establish that the relevant provisions of the 1861 (Offences Aganst the Person) Act and the 1945 Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Act are incompatible with article 8 of the Human Rights Convention, the court grants leave to apply for judicial review against the Department of Justice and the Department of Health only.”

The judge added: “The court will programme this case in such a way that the substantive stage of the proceedings will be completed not later than January 2019.”